‘Hole in the head’ operations for addiction resumed

Drug addiction is a terrible thing. Mostly with uppers and hallucinogens, it’s easy to form a phychological dependence. Those who regularly use so-called ‘clubbing’ drugs often feel that they can’t enjoy themselves without them. Bad, but that pales in comparison to heroin/opiate addiction. Opiate addiction creeps up on you, quickly develops into a physical dependence and starts to systematically ruin your life as well as your body. Withdrawal from opiate addiction drags you through hell itself (both physically and mentally) making it almost impossible to quit.

China is no stranger to the scourge of heroin addiction. Available throughout the country for around 400 Yuan per gramme (about 8-10 injections, or 2-3 days worth for an addict). Therefore, a few years ago Chinese doctors invented a new treatment for drug addiction. It involved inserting a hot needle through the skull and burning away part of the brain:

A thin surgical needle is slowly inserted deep into the brain, where it is heated to a temperature of up to 80C and kept inside for seven days by use of a surgical clamp applied around the head. The needle is removed, destroying – if all has gone to plan – that part of the brain linked to addictions and cravings.

However, this time last year, and after approximately 500 of the operations, the health ministry banned the procedure citing mixed results. The side effects included loss of memory, weakened sex drive and extreme mood swings. In some cases, the personalities of the patients markedly changed. However, the ‘hole in the head’ operations have now resumed again as part of a controlled experiment at a hospital in Xian.

Chinese drug addicts and their desperate families had been willing to pay thousands of pounds for the treatment – pioneered, but then banned, in Russia – in the belief that it would cure them.

Dr Gao admitted that early attempts at treatment failed – one of his first patients went back on drugs within a week – but said the technique had now been vastly improved.

Read the article for individual reports of successes and failures. The treatment appears to have a positive effect on the cravings of some former addicts, but at a cost. From what I understand, the inner workings of the human brain remain a mystery to science. Therefore, it looks like Chinese doctors are literally poking around in the dark with this one.

I’m all for progress but I can’t help thinking that a monitored programme of oral Methadone solution (an artificial drug that mimicks heroin in the body) remains a far better alternative that this ‘hole in the head’ operation (Methdone programmes are available at all Chinese hospitals). Also, at just a couple of dollars per 10ml bottle, a lot cheaper as well.

The Discussion: 13 Comments

I think I’d rather stick with my heroin addiction and have my brain cells die slowly through morphine than burned to death by needle.

I mean, ow.

November 20, 2005 @ 4:09 am | Comment

Apparently, only a local anesthetic is used. a sobering thought. It’s bad enough having things poked into your teeth, ears, nose etc but brain?

November 20, 2005 @ 4:14 am | Comment

The only thing that is unique about the operation is that it, at least attempts, to destroy the part of the brain which is responsible for cravings. Thereby, turning former addicts away from future temptation by burning away that part of the brain.

Admittedly, even a long weaning-off programme of Methadone can do little to keep addicts from going back to drugs at some point on the future. You’ve got to really want to stop – and keep stopped.

November 20, 2005 @ 4:17 am | Comment

My sister works with recovering heroin addicts, and, from all the evidence she’s shown me, methodone is not a solution at all. Pretty much a dismal failure, really.
As Martyn said, the only way to give up opiates is if you really want to give up. and it seems that it takes most addicts a long time to come to that mental state.

Hot needles in the brain sounds pretty terrifying mind. You’d have to be really really desperate. I’m betting it’s the addicts’ families who are signing them up for this rather than the addicts themselves.

November 20, 2005 @ 8:36 am | Comment

dishuiguanyin, you’re right, usually their family signed them up.
It’s actually a tragedy…

November 20, 2005 @ 9:22 am | Comment

This is awful. Addiction is very closely associated with a dopamine reinforcement loop, so it’s no surprise that sexdrive goes down (depends on dopamine) and memory and moods – all dependent on dopamine. I might add that I wouldn’t be surprised if the patients develop parkinsons disease – also associated with dopamine signalling deficits, which might arise due to this treatment. Totally awful.

November 20, 2005 @ 11:54 am | Comment

This reminds me of early US treatments for alcoholism. After electroshock, the last-resort ploy was lobotomy! The Chinese treatment at least sounds a bit more focused, if no less terrifying.

I’ve also heard dismal reports from friends who went through Methadone treatment. Harder to kick than heroin. It’s just a way to reduce the crimes associated with addiction and stabilize it, not end it.

November 20, 2005 @ 12:19 pm | Comment

I remember watching a show about trepanning- this couple in 1970 had an electric drill and actually drilled a hole through their heads to gain cosmic conciouscness. They both say they have no regrets. But what really got me was the photo of the woman, with this crazed grin on her face in the photo as the drill went in. Her name was Amanda Feilding, (now apparently Lady Neidpath) and she’s since set up the Foundation to Further Consciousness.

November 20, 2005 @ 2:25 pm | Comment

Interesting how physical changes to the brain can alter mood/memory/personality. It reminds me of the guy – Phinneas Fog? – who took a piece of iron through the skull, lived to tell the tail but had a dramatically different personality. It makes one ponder the “eternal” nature of the soul claimed in some religions – what is the relationship of personality, free will etc to that eternal soul, if so much of the personality can be changed through physical alteration of the brain?

November 20, 2005 @ 8:23 pm | Comment

horrifying…isnt this similar to what dalmer did to his victims? putting acid in their brains, to create a willing sex slave?

i hope this never happens to any animals i like.

November 20, 2005 @ 10:05 pm | Comment

I know it sounds insensitive, but this has given me an earworm of Frank Sinatra crooning: “You Go To My Head”

November 21, 2005 @ 5:22 am | Comment

I think drug treatment services provided for drug users, in whatever form, need to serve the ultimate purpose of increasing their well-beings, not to risk their future. In this sense, methadone would be a much better option since it is safer. It might not be the best solution for every drug user therefore we need to make sure that there are many options available, but definitely the “hole in the head” solution is far too dangerous and risky.

December 21, 2005 @ 1:52 am | Comment

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